Whenever I’m in southernmost South America, my end-of-the-day ritual is sitting down to a good meal—after spending most of my daylight hours in the essential task of updating formulaic text, it feels like a reward to dine well and enjoy a pisco sour and/or a glass of wine. Even though it’s still technically working—after all, I review restaurants in my guidebooks and this blog—it’s also an opportunity for indulgence.
|A pisco sour at Afrigonia, a Patagonian fusion restaurant in Puerto Natales, Chile|
At other hours, my eating habits can be strictly practical, and I often grab things on the run, even though I avoid fast-food chains. When I’m driving, especially for long distances, I’ll carry takeaway food such as empanadas that I can eat while on the move. Finger food becomes a way of life.
|The pastry display at Café La Gringa, Puerto Varas, Chile|
Argentines and Chileans don’t take quite the same approach. For instance, I love cupcakes and muffins, but they’re something to grab and eat on the run. Recently, though, at the downtown branch of La Gringa Bakery in Puerto Varas, I saw two locals eating blueberry muffins with forks. Maybe that shouldn’t have startled me but, to my mind, a muffin is something that you eat with your hands.
That said, Argentine and Chilean table manners differ from mine in many other items that I prefer to eat with the hands. My wife sometimes attributes that to my Scandinavian heritage and calls me vikingo (“Viking”) which, in Argentine Spanish, is roughly synonymous with “slob.” In the following paragraphs, though, I’ll try to explain the differences.
|A plate of Argentine-style empanadas|
To my mind, one of the world’s greatest finger foods is the Argentine empanada—roughly the size of the palm of your hand (I prefer it to the Chilean version, which is larger with heavier dough). So long as it’s not too warm and juicy—there’s a danger of splashing your shirt—I enjoy the feel of it before I bite in. Still, in many restaurants (not necessarily formal ones), Argentine will eat their empanadas with knife and fork.
|A slice of onion-rich fugazzeta at Pizzería Güerrín, downtown Buenos Aires|
Then, of course, there’s pizza. When I was a child in the Pacific Northwest—so many decades ago—pizza was a novelty and I recall hearing on the radio that “pizza is eaten with the hands.” Argentines, though, almost invariably choose to consume their thick-crusted, cheese-heavy pizza with knife and fork, and I sometimes feel conspicuous when I bite into a slice of my favorite cheese-and-onion fugazzeta while holding it in my hand. Chileans, for the most part, also use knife and fork when eating pizza.
|A lomito sandwich from a stand on the Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile|
Then there are sandwiches, which Chileans devour at outlets such as Fuente Mardoqueo (one of Santiago’s best sandwich shops). As the photograph shows, Chilean sandwiches can be stacked high or, alternatively, spread wide—some of them are so large as to resemble pizzas. Almost invariably, though, Chileans eat their sandwiches with knife and fork and, given their size and tendency to fall apart, it’s not an unreasonable thing—though I almost always try to use my hands. I do find that I often cannot finish a Chilean sandwich because of its size, and recommend that visitors order one for every two persons—you can always order another.
|A Barros Luco - beef and melted cheese - available in downtown Santiago|
That’s what Anthony Bourdain learned when he visited Chile and tried the completo—a caloric overload that I relished (pun intended!) when I was a backpacker on a budget but haven’t touched in many years. Bourdain’s famous for diving into everything and did so in Chile, but even he couldn’t finish the foot-long hot dog smothered in condiments including avocado and mayonnaise. At least he managed to avoid soiling his shirt with drippings from this notoriously messy item—which Chileans also eat with their hands.
|Anthony Bourdain couldn't finish a foot-long completo when he went to Chile|